When you think of Paul Weller, you do not picture him on Hollywood’s notorious Sunset Strip. Baked either by the sun or lurid neon, a tourist hell trading on successive eras of American nightlife notoriety – 40s gangsters, 80s hair metallers – it is not the sort of locale where anyone, let alone a scion of precision-cut, post-mod cultural rectitude, should find inspiration.
And yet his 15th solo album, On Sunset, finds the now 62-year-old Weller taking in the avenue on a visit to his son. The years dissolve around him. The Jam played the Whiskey a Go Go in 1977 – punk-enervated modernists sorely disappointed to find a California hippie pall clinging to the area.
But on Sunset, “the sun was higher than it ever was before,” this son of Surrey reminisces. Soon, a jazz flute kicks in; heady 60s female vocal harmonies and classy vintage string arrangements light up the song’s dazzled take on the passage of time. “The world I knew has all gone by,” Weller notes, without rancour.
The song, it turns out, is a microcosm of the album – a sunset-within-a-Sunset, one where Weller ponders maturity and its epiphanies, dancing and inner peace, while flicking through racks of vintage soul sides. This is not the kind of sunset in which mortality looms, but where the gentler evening light casts everything in a fresh aspect. There is warmth and succour here, undercut with a playful scattering of mischievous sounds; orchestral soul with eloquent quirks; nuances that hark back to Weller’s second band, the Style Council, whose keys player Mick Talbot contributes Hammond organ to three tracks.
There is more than a little zen abroad, too. Even before lockdown, Weller’s just-so hair had grown long and flowing. On a song called Village, he extols his own contentment. The video, filmed in his Black Barn studio, features a cameo from a shiny silver statue of the Buddha.
Not for Weller the bucket list. He’s pretty kushti where he is. “I don’t need all the things you hold in high regard/ They mean nothing at all,” he sings, again without disdain.
A song literally called Equanimity swerves away from On Sunset’s core soul and solicits the Beatles and David Bowie. There is more than a little Buddhism going on here too. “You suffer hurt because you can’t let go,” Weller sighs benevolently.
Where once Weller was synonymous with gruff stylistic intolerance preserved in aspic – the sort of man who watched his barber like a hawk, lest he trim a millimetre off the wrong part of Weller’s chiselled haircut, a cultural figure who could mobilise a motorcade of Lambrettas with just a nod – this ever-more mutable “Changingman” has actually presided over a decade of wild musical experimentation.
In 2008, Weller confessed to a penchant for cosmic jazz, releasing Song for Alice, to mark the 2007 death of Alice Coltrane; Robert Wyatt played trumpet on it. In 2009, matter met anti-matter on a song called 7 & 3 Is the Striker’s Name, a collaboration between Weller and My Bloody Valentine feedback-merchant Kevin Shields. From 2008’s 22 Dreams onwards, Weller has dabbled in all sorts of outre soundmaking, releasing albums as varied as they were regular. Perhaps strangest of all, in January, he released an EP, In Another Room, full of musique concrète.
A hangover from that experiment makes its way on to Mirror Ball, the album opener. Despite the glam of the title, the track never actually goes disco, but Weller hymns the liberation of the dancefloor to a blissed-out, Metronomy-tinged take on soul. Halfway in, the song finds room for analogue warbles, shimmering bits and throbbing pieces, applause. All these excellent found-sound, retro-futurist tendencies aren’t enough to carry Earth Beat, however. Here, a Col3trane guest spot and well-turned textures don’t make up for the song’s pat, woolly lyrics, which impede the consummate glide of the rest of Weller’s words.
The album’s most riveting two tracks are – of all things – treatises on value. On Rockets, a graceful and emotive closer, Weller emulates Bowie again, underscoring their shared intonations. The song’s realisations are couched in grace and beauty, but they are bleak. We are puny “little fireworks, exploding in the streets”, just pawns in a bigger power game. “All the wealth is hidden, diamonds that glisten and solid gold,” croons Weller. “We’ll have it all, it’s worthless.”
Meanwhile, More is an eloquent centrepiece on an album whose spiritual leaning is a far cry from Oasis calling their most bloated and least mindful album Be Here Now just to ape George Harrison. Weller’s reckonings feel earned.
Materialism is a busted flush, muses Weller: “Little came from having more,” he sings. That mere stuff doesn’t make you happy is clearly not news. But intoned in Weller’s inimitable husk – and with a long, gorgeous, funky instrumental passage that refuses to settle on genre – it more than bears repeating.